NYFF Diary Part Two: Life, Death, the Past, the Future, and a Magnificent Lobster

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Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in Yorgos Lanthimos’s ‘The Lobster’.

Second week of press screenings for the New York Film Festival, and in broad terms, this week was considerably more exciting then the first. This is the diary were I keep my overall thoughts on the films I’m seeing there. Click here for Part One, keep reading for part two…

Wednesday, September 23

Heaven Can Wait (directed by Ernst Lubitsch)
This new (and beautiful looking) restoration by Schawn Belston and the people over at 20th Century Fox is my first encounter with Lubitsch’s work, and a pretty fantastic place to start. If you know anything about classic Hollywood, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the elusive “Lubitsch touch”, a term whose origins might be rooted strictly in early Hollywood branding, but has extended to represent the brilliance of one of history’s most beloved directors.

The “Lubitsch touch” is an esoteric term, that can’t really be defined, but watching Heaven Can Wait -a comedy that recounts a man’s life in order to decide whether or not he deserves to spend eternity in hell- I could sense some of the magic people had found in Lubitsch. My knowledge of his work is limited, but a first encounter leads me to believe the so-called “touch” might be something different to everyone who watches his movies. In my case, I felt sparks rolling down my spine as I saw the cast -led by Don Ameche, Gene Tierney and Charles Coburn, all fantastic- break the boundaries of traditional classic Hollywood acting and indulge in a line-reading, facial gesture, or body movement that goes beyond imitating life and becomes a story all its own.

But those moments, however powerful and meaningful, are relatively brief in a movie brimming with truly hilarious observations and satirical detours.

Microbe and Gasoline (directed by Michel Gondry)
Outside of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindcritics and audiences haven’t been particularly receptive to Michel Gondry’s career as a film director. Case in point, Microbe and Gasoline was greeted with so little fanfare when it premiered in France earlier this summer that it seemed destined to be forgotten. In an unlikely turn of events, it was selected for the main slate of this year’s New York Film Festival, and thank God it did.

This coming-of-age tale about two fourteen year-olds going on an unlikely road-trip sprinkles bits of Gondry’s idiosyncratic quirk onto one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen so far this year. Not only is the story of these two tween outcasts very funny (and often audacious in its comedy), but it shines with a sense of truthfulness that isn’t always captured in this type of movies. Having been a fourteen year-old boy myself, I recognized the truthful ups and downs of this friendship in a way that made me think this movie might be some sort of male equivalent to Lukas Moodysson’s wonderful We Are the Best! 

Thursday, September 24

Don’t Blink – Robert Frank (directed by Laura Israel)
I guess one could call Laura Israel’s portrait of her friend and sometimes collaborator a well-made film in certain regards, but it is also aggressively not the kind of movie I enjoy. Robert Frank is a photographer and avant-garde filmmaking. Based on the glimpses we get in this movie Frank’s work looks like the kind of experimental film that I don’t usually enjoy. I certainly didn’t enjoy watching Don’t Blink, which uses a loose, non-linear, free association-type style to paint a portrait of Frank as an artist and as a person, but fails -like many lackluster experimental films- to deliver any kind of clear message or emotion. Maybe that’s the point and I’m not sophisticated enough, but I wen into this movie knowing very little about its subject, and walked out somehow knowing less. It didn’t tell me any facts about Frank’s career as an artist, nor did it show me an interesting or insightful side of him as a person.

Friday, September 25

The Forbidden Room (directed by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson)
Guy Maddin’s latest movie (co-directed by Evan Johnson) is a two-strip technicolor pastiche of epic proportions. A gigantic storytelling odyssey, where every character’s dreams, tales, and desires gain existences of their own and take us down a seemingly infinite rabbit hole of B-movie fantasies. It’s chaotic, overwhelming, and somewhat sluggish in its middle section, but it’s definitely inspiring. Like the best of Maddin’s work, watching this movie is like injecting your veins with a shot of pure cinema.

Maddin gave a press conference after the screening, and the story behind the making of the movie might actually be even more interesting than the film itself. Maddin conceived of this as a sort of “internet seance” that tries to summon the lost movies of the past. The Forbidden Room is a companion to this project, which should hit the web early in 2016.

Needless to say, I’m aggressively looking forward to the unveiling of the full project, and The Forbidden Room has only strengthen my anticipation, which doesn’t mean the movie isn’t great on its own. If you want to get an idea of what goes on in this movie, I see it as the other side of The Grand Budapest Hotels coin. If Wes Anderson is an obsessive perfectionist, Maddin is an absolute anarchist; meaning that the nesting dolls of this movie’s structure don’t long for a forgotten past as much as they mock a hegemonic future.

Mia Madre (directed by Nanni Moretti)
The most traumatic and heart-wrenching elements of this story about a filmmaker (Margherita Buy) trying to finish a movie while taking care of her dying mother are kept to a minimum, which is much appreciated. In my experience, the long road toward a relative’s death is not the incessantly loud cry that many movies choose to portray, but something closer to the doubtful whispers Mia Madre‘s protagonist goes through. She does snap at one point, becasue Moretti is not afraid of earned emotion, but it’s mostly a modest and honest movie. To put it simply, you feel this movie knows what it’s talking about.

That being said, it’s not the most original or originally executed piece of cinema of this festival by far. It actually stands out among the main slate selection by being so straight-forward in its narrative. Mia Madre is not flashy. It aims at a modest target and, for the most part, hits the mark. The comedy (courtesy of an improvisational John Turturro) work charmingly, and at the end, the movie is moving when it needs to be.

Saturday, September 26

The Walk (directed by Robert Zemeckis)
This is the big opening film of the festival. It should have its gala premiere minutes after this write-up is posted. The big selling point is Zemeckis’s rendering of Philippe Petit’s 1974 wire-walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and in 3D! The scene in question is undoubtedly spectacular. It’s as tense and exciting as you would want it it be, so it’s incredibly sad that the movie around it is kind of a complete turd.

I plan to write a full review of The Walk later tonight, in case you want to read some more of my thoughts about it.

The Lobster (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
If you’re single, you’re taken to a resort where you have forty-five days to find yourself a partner. If you don’t, you’re transformed into an animal of your choosing and released to the wild. That’s the premise of Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant third feature, which is clearly the stand-out of the festival so far. With the aide of a cast led by Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, and Lea Seydoux, Lanthimos seamlessly transitions into his first English-language movie without losing the sharpness of his Greek movies.

You will be hard-pressed to find a movie that blends eeriness, morbidity, and hilarity as seamlessly as The Lobster. The highly stylized world inhabited by these characters seems like something taken out of Buñuel or Kafka, but behind the ridiculous exterior you will find a wistful meditation on the nature of love. I’m still working through the movie’s themes, but I suspect Lanthimos is trying to explore the relationship between our inner and outer lives when it comes to falling and -more crucially- staying in love. Sadly, a relationship is never just about two people.

The Best Movies of 2005

top ten 2005
This is the official end of the 2005 Project, which followed last year’s Summer of ’92 in my obsessive quest to determine what is the best movie of my lifetime. The “closing ceremony”, so to speak, is a list of my top ten favorite movies of that year.

I’ve always remembered 2005 as one of the best years of my life. It mostly has to do with a number of personal reasons, but I was 13 at the time, which makes it right around the time I was discovering “grown-up” movies and television. However, fond memories and contemporary realities are different, and my taste has changed quite dramatically since then. Back then, my favorite movies of the year were A History of Violence, Match Pointand The Squid and the WhaleOnly one of those three movies remains in my top ten. Wanna find out what movies are on the list and why? You just have to keep reading…

Top ten best movies of 2005

Disclaimer: There are a couple of movies I wanted to watch before writing this article, but couldn’t find a decent copy of. I’ve made peace with catching up with most of them at some point in the future, but the one I’m really bummed I couldn’t get a hold on is Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s Cannes-winning The Death of Mr. LazarescuIt is, by all accounts, an essential film, and I couldn’t write a “best of 2005” list without mentioning it.

Grizzly101. Grizzly Man
(Dir. Werner Herzog / 103 min. / USA)
One of the most unique and excellent cinematic experiments. The Discovery Channel had loads of footage to make a movie about the life and tragic death of Timothy Treadwell. But instead of just making the movie, they handed the footage to Werner Herzog, a man whose personality can only be described as the absolutely opposite of Treadwell’s. The result is a magnetic dialogue in which Treadwell’s love for nature blooms from the afterlife, and Herzog tries to re-assemble the life of a mind he can barely grasp.

Film Title: Munich.2. Munich
(Dir. Steven Spielberg / 164 min. / USA)
A strong contender for Spielberg’s greatest movie, Munich is now more relevant than ever. Clearly a response to 9/11 and the war on terror, Spielberg boldly says what no one was willing to say at the time, and what most people are still unwilling to admit: violence will only bring more violence. And he did it by examining one of the most difficult subjects in all of contemporary politics. Years from now, this will be one of the key movies to understanding the politics of our world. We will hopefully look at it as a sign of change, and not an early omen of our failures.

pride083. Pride & Prejudice
(Dir. Joe Wright / 129 min. / UK)
The most delightful experience on this list. Jane Austen is obviously a genius. Literary adaptation are often dully swallowed by their own prestige. The beauty of Wright’s movie is in how excited he seems to be not only to be telling this story, but to be telling it as a movie. Lighting, costumes, sets, camera movements, editing, score, sounds, choreography… no cinematic elements goes unexplored in turning this into a movie that shares the lively enthusiasm of Austen’s prose and its main protagonist.

squid074. The Squid and the Whale
(Dir. Noah Baumbach / 81 min. / USA)
Of all the movies in this list, this one hit me in the most personal way. The life of the characters in Baumbach’s autobiographical movie has enough small similarities with my own personal history as to make me identify and consider some of the most upsetting elements about the aftermath of this disturbed family’s divorce. But it’s not that it only speaks to me, the level of detail Baumbach puts into the movie makes it ring true. There is enough here to find multiple ways into the mind of these characters. It’s not a “nice” movie, but it’s a deeply genuine one.

proposition pearce5. The Proposition
(Dir. John Hillcoat / 104 min. / Australia)
A perfectly made Australian western, The Proposition follows in the tradition of the genre by using its conventional set-up to explore deeper and darker elements of the soul. It not only makes reference to the most violent passages of Australia’s history, but it uses the wild frontier to examine the nature of justice, and how the cold and analytical nature of reason is easily defeated by the boiling hot passion of our humane feelings. These feelings make us human, but are they our greatest strength, or our biggest flaw?

newworld066. The New World
(Dir. Terrence Malick / 135 min* / USA)
I have a limited experience with Malick, but this is the only one of his movies that has truly spoken to me. The visuals, aided by genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, are amazing, and the structure of the pre-existing history of Jamestown and Pocahontas give Malick solid ground to build on. It might seem a little too new age-y at the start, but as it goes on, The New World reveals that by being fascinated with the world of the natives, John Smith is as complicit as anyone in Pocahontas’s tragic end. There is no way of approaching the virgin land without changing it forever.

threeburials057. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
(Dir. Tommy Lee Jones / 121 min. / USA)
There are imperfect elements to this screenplay, but the fact that both of Jones’s movies as a director have gotten as little recognition as they have is just criminal. In this beautiful allegorical tale, the friendship of a rugged all-american rancher and an undocumented Mexican immigrant is put to the test in the form of a typical Western quest across the Texan border. It’s quite a magical movie, full of poetic metaphors and heartbreaking parables about the human relationships between the two countries. On a more superficial level, Jones speaking Spanish is a delight.

warworlds088. War of the Worlds
(Dir. Steven Spielberg / 116 min. / USA)
Dismissed as corny and poisoned by Cruise’s bad publicity upon release, just a decade has been enough for me to recognize the gigantic intentions of this movie. Sure, the more corny aspects are still there (it is, after all, Spielberg), but then again, this *is* Spielberg. And this might very well be the quintessential disaster movie of our time. A movie that, through imagery and directorial strength, harkens back to the most primal fears of humanity in a world that has met the holocaust, 9/11, and global warming.

chappelle099. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
(Dir. Michel Gondry /  103 min. / USA)
I considered this a fun movie when I first saw it. Nine years later, it shines as a defiant political document. Its most radical characteristic? It’s optimism. Chappelle is a great performer, but he is also a very intelligent man. On the face of the Bush administration back then, and on the face of gentrification and police violence now, Chappelle’s love-letter to the “hood” becomes an idealistic and powerful cry towards tolerance, community, and understanding. The funniest, most entertaining deeply radical film you’ll ever see.

Qi Shu10. Three Times
(Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien / 120 min. / Taiwan)
Determining the 10th spot was quite hard for me. I seriously considered Brokeback Mountain, Cacheand Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for this spot, but at the end, even if I wasn’t *completely* in love with Hou’s multi-temporal love stories, there are very few movies that can compare to the very best moments in Three Times. I wasn’t a big fan of the obtuse modernity of its third act, but the second act is as audacious a filmmaking exercise as you’re going to find, and the first act is one of the most gloriously romantic segments I have ever seen in any movie. And even with my reservations towards some of the segments, the juxtaposition of these three love stories is quite powerful.

Honorable Mentions: Brokeback Mountain, Cacheand Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

And in case you’re curious, here are my favorite performances of 2005:

Lead Actor: Steve Carell (The 40 Year-Old Virgin), Robert Downey Jr (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Ray Winstone (The Proposition)

Lead Actress: Joan Allen (The Upside of Anger), Q’Orianke Kilcher (The New World), Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice), Qi Shu (Three Times), Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)

Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels (The Squid and the Whale), Val Kilmer (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Barry Pepper (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), Mickey Rourke (Sin City), Donald Sutherland (Pride & Prejudice)

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams (Junebug), Taraji P. Henson (Hustle & Flow), Catherine Keeener (The 40 Year-Old Virgin), Laura Linney (The Squid and the Whale), Jena Malone (Pride & Prejudice)

2005 Project Batch 9: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Brick

Screen shot 2015-05-13 at 1.36.44 a.m.I’m sorry it took a while (I’ve been really busy with school), but the 2005 Project continues…

blockpartypostDave Chappelle’s Block Party (Directed by Michel Gondry)
The thing that makes ‘Dave Chappelle’s Block Party’ so good is that it doesn’t assume that the mystery Block Party organized by one of the biggest comedians of the last decade changed the world forever. That sort of self-important attitude is what makes a movie like ‘Woodstock’, for example, so unbearable to watch. Chappelle’s Block Party is a gift to the ‘hood, and Michel Gondry’s movie is not as much a documentation, as it is trying to capture the essence of why Chappelle decided to invest his time and money in such a gift.

On the surface, the answer is fun. Gather a bunch of exciting artists and get a lot of people to come together and have a good time. But if you look at it deeper, it is a love letter to working class neighborhoods and their communities. It’s a subtle attack on gentrification precisely because it doesn’t feel like an attack. The movie is so relaxed and casual that you can’t help but fall into its groove. The movie will make you have a great time, and thus, you will appreciate the greatness of people coming together and sharing something with each other.

Everything about ‘Block Party’ works in its favor. The improvised cinematography, Chappelle walking around telling jokes, the interviews with the many people in the neighborhood, the marching band kids and the old ladies from Ohio, the power of the musical acts, and the way Gondry and the editors juxtapose images to turn this fun day into a utopian experience. This is a truly democratic movie. It wants to be a good time, and it ends up being so much more.

kissbangpostKiss Kiss Bang Bang (Directed by Shane Black)
Fun, and funny, and meta. What else can I say about Shane Black’s ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’? Not much, I’m afraid, except that I really like it. 2005 seems like an interesting year in that we had two neo-noirs that have endured in popularity and estimation with cinephiles (the other is Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’). Black is a clever guy who likes writing clever dialogue, but does his movie transcend its surface pleasures? (the same question can be asked of Johnson’s ‘Brick’).

Black’s exploration of the meta-narrative and artificiality of the main character of a noir being the one that tells his own story is very funny, but doesn’t seem to want to comment on the artificiality of cinema beyond spicing up the movie with a playfully unreliable narrator. That is basically the thing that keeps me from outright loving ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’, the fact that, in the end, it is an incredibly solid movie, but doesn’t come through with the dark ending of something like Altman’s ‘The Player‘.

That being said, the movie is a lot of fun. This is the role with which Robert Downey Jr demonstrated he was ready to come back to stardom. After seeing ‘Age of Ultron’ and realizing how his schtick has reached Johnny-Depp-in-the-‘Pirate’-sequels levels of sleepwalking, I was so happy to be remembered of how fresh and exciting his resurrecting career once was. The same goes for Val Kilmer, an actor who most directors don’t seem to have any idea of how to use, but gives the best performance of his career as a gay private detective.

untitledBrick (Directed by Rian Johnson)
I admire Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’ more than I like it. As a first film, it’s quite something. As an exercise on the functional understanding of cinematic genre, it is even more. The idea of taking the plot, feel, and aesthetics of a film noir and setting it in a contemporary high school sounds ridiculous, but there was something in the air ten years ago that gave us both ‘Veronica Mars‘ and this movie.

As far as a movie can be called effective, or well-constructed, or successful, ‘Brick’ is all of those things. Props must, and have been given extensively, to Johnson for being able to get away with having Joseph Gordon-Levitt and other high schoolers talk like hard-boiled detectives in a dead-serious movie. The guy knows how to tell a story, he knows where to place a camera, how to stage a scene, and how to cut it in order to make it sing. Why, then, does ‘Brick’ leave me feeling impressed, but also pretty cold?

Well, perfection can be alienating. I understand ‘Brick’, but I don’t feel ‘Brick’. I have little affection for the characters, which isn’t always a huge impediment to connecting with a movie. No, I think my big issue with ‘Brick’ is how difficult it is to make out the philosophy of its themes. What is the movie about? It’s a pretty cool movie, but what is it trying to say? What I’m saying is -and I feel like I’m repeating what I said about ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’- I can appreciate a well-made movie, but I can’t love a movie that doesn’t transcend into the world of meaning.